Robert Stone, a retired attorney and lifelong Pittsburgher with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, lives at AHAVA Memory Care at the Jewish Association on Aging. His wife, Eleanor, used to Uber from their North Oakland condo to visit with him daily, sometimes for hours at a time.
That was before COVID-19.
Today, the Stones communicate via FaceTime — and Robert’s son wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Overall, we were happy that they [restricted visitation] completely when they did, even if it means we no longer get to see my dad,” said Harlan Stone, who works as an attorney downtown and lives in Squirrel Hill. “I think we have all put his health considerations first … We feel blessed we have him at AHAVA. I can’t think of another place I’d rather have him right now.”
Senior living facilities and nursing homes have been hit hard by COVID-19. Various news sources reported that coronavirus-
related deaths in long-term care (LTC) facilities doubled last week to about 6,000 in the U.S. In New York, which has seen dramatic spikes in the number of positive cases, some estimate more than 2% of nursing home residents statewide have died from COVID-19.
As of press time, that’s not the case in Pittsburgh.
Though Allegheny County has reported its share of confirmed cases and COVID-19-related deaths — including more than 75 positive cases at four Kane assisted living centers — the JAA reported no positive cases of the virus among its roughly 4,000 resident-clients or staff as of April 20.
For staff and leadership at JAA, keeping COVID-19 at bay has been an education.
“We’re working as diligently as we can to stay ahead of this,” JAA CEO Debbie Winn-Horvitz said earlier this week. “Literally, every single day for the past eight weeks … we are implementing something new. I am continually learning from what others are going through.”
Winn-Horvitz said she has been communicating with colleagues at LTC facilities around the nation and taking part in webinars through the national Association of Jewish Aging Services, of which she serves as vice chairperson and JAA is a member.
One Friday, she was speaking with an administrator at a Kline Galland facility in the Seattle area, where the first COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were reported earlier this year. That administrator mentioned they were separating where staff members could congregate to take breaks. By the following Monday, it was a JAA policy, too.
“We’re doing things above and beyond anything that’s coming out of the health department or the CDC,” Winn-Horvitz said.
Each staff member, for example, has their temperature taken and symptoms screened each day when they report to work. All employees — there have been no furloughs or cuts to staff at their buildings — are issued JAA scrubs, which are washed on the premises and never leave the site. Residents have been eating meals on disposable sanitary containers for weeks now.
Winn-Horvitz is optimistic but cautious.
“The reality is there’s no 100 % guarantee you can keep (COVID-19) out of anywhere,” she said. “We have to be prepared. We wouldn’t be serving everyone well if we weren’t prepared.
“We pray we don’t have any cases,” she added, “but chances are someone — a staffer or a resident — will test positive.”
In addition to calls and webinars through the Association of Jewish Aging Services, Winn-Horvitz said she has been communicating with LTC facilities of other faiths and program styles. She also has been participating in calls with her management team and the advocacy group Leading Age seven days every week.
“There’s so much information coming out,” she said.
The Pittsburgh Jewish community has “been rallying around us,” Winn-Horvitz added. “When we put out a call for fabric masks, we get hundreds of fabric masks. I’m humbled by the support we’ve been receiving from this community. I think everyone here feels that.”
Yetta Speiser doesn’t feel alone at Weinberg Terrace, a JAA personal care community on Bartlett Street, even though she is not allowed to receive visitors in her apartment because of the protective JAA policies in place.
She laughs when reminiscing about a family friend who recently “visited” her from outside her window, complete with a fish sandwich from Eat’n Park around the corner. She can handle stay-at-home orders if it means she and her neighbors are keeping safe.
“We have to eat in our room, which isn’t too pleasant, but it’s for our own good,” Speiser said. “They’re doing as much as they can and thank God nobody has it here.”
But can Speiser see the light at the end of the tunnel, a way out of the new normal?
“I’m 93 and I’ve never lived through anything like this,” she laughed. “And I hope we never have to do it again.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.